Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mari Nicholson piece on Navigating the Bangkok Noir

The Bangkok night scene is often depicted as a neon lit fantasy of happy hookers and generous punters. A recent exhibition and book by Chris Coles shows the reality.

Old Bangkok hands will no doubt be familiar with the work of artist Chris Coles whose painting are being slotted into the new genre called Bangkok Noir, a genre that covers both art and literature of which the crime novels of John Burdett are one example. Recently there has been more than a little buzz around this movement and now American artist and Bangkok resident Chris Coles has produced a book of paintings, an album of expressionist works, mostly watercolours on paper, called Navigating the Bangkok Noir.

Patpong and Soi Cowboy Night Scenes

To those familiar with the bar scenes in Thailand’s capital, the paintings will strike a familiar chord. Beauty and tragedy can be seen in the eyes and posture of the women whose stories can be read from the paintings; a vignette accompanies each portrait to help the viewer of the work or reader of the painting to understand the situation. The captions work to merge the visual and the printed word, the whole being a sociological essay on the red light district of Bangkok.
Night scenes feature people from all walks of life and from many nations, sad-eyed for the most part, damaged and looking anything but happy. Yet the bright, jewel-like colours are such a contrast that a glib reading of the melancholy could be wrong, especially if we read it from a western-centric point of view. These denizens of the night are very much part of the real Bangkok, not an aberration as some would have you believe. Chris Coles has done them a favour by rescuing them from the Patpong Disneyland in which they are often set and re-instating them on the canvas of Thai life – specifically the red-light areas of the capital.

Crime Writers and the Artist Chris Coles

Although the genre links crime writers like John Burdett and Christopher Moore to the artist, the thriller writers' work is somewhat different as plots and action seem to give life and choice to the people who inhabit these stories. One feels they have free-will of a sort whereas the people in Chris Coles' pictures seem to look out, glassy-eyed on to a world in which their horizons are limited. Nor are these the people the (often) drunken farang see through rose-tinted glasses, the mythical happy hookers; this is how it is, the bleaker, seedier side of Bangkok life.

The Pictures

Each image is a single event, a standalone glimpse of the underbelly of Bangkok, not a full story. There are merely a few names to put to the faces, and you feel that Chris Coles has a deep well of sympathy for these night people. He does not even seem to dislike their clients much but looks on them dispassionately, although they are usually painted as physically gross.

Crime writer Christopher Moore has written an excellent foreword to the exhibition catalogue for Navigating the Bangkok Noir. But then, Navigating the Bangkok Noir is more than a catalogue: it is a pictorial history of life in Krung Thep, the City of Angels so called, a city where there are more sinners than saints.Navigating the Bangkok Noir by Chris Coles is published by Marshall Cavendish (2011) and is available from all good bookshops and from Amazon.com at approximately £12


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